anti graphics: the cult of un-think

by Art Chantry ( )

in 1977, when i clipped this ad (35 long years ago), you have to remember what the pop world was actually like. ‘star wars’ and ‘saturday night fever’ were still brand new movies playing in the theaters. the charts were full of that southern california rock sound of the eagles, linda ronstadt, fleetwood mac and jackson browne. jimmy carter was still a new president. everyone knew about (and hated) disco – but we all bought the records like we were told to (sold to?) because that’s what was playing the charts and filling the airwaves. bands like the ramones and devo and patti smith actually TERRIFIED people – they were considered deeply frightening. if ‘punk rock’ was even thought about, it was tom petty and the heartbreakers and elvis costello and KISS. ‘british punk’ was a freak show of the lowest order that you could only read about in rolling stone magazine or (if you could find a copy) creem magazine. there were no zines, no indie labels, no short hair. everybody still wore bell-bottoms and the edgy stuff was roxy music, t.rex, david bowie and something we still called “glitter rock.” there weren’t even “oldies” stations on the radio airwaves! you couldn’t even hear “old music” (older than a couple of years old) on the radio – unless it was led zeppelin or the beatles.

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if we knew anything at all about the sex pistols it was through hyped-up media scandal and maybe (if you were lucky) catching a newscast about about the violence of the british punk scene. we thought ‘punk’ meant ripped clothes and safety pins in the cheeks and black leather jackets and fist fights. nobody had ever really HEARD the music of the sex pistols, except those die-hard rock geeks who had to literally track down the imported singles in specialty record stores in the college towns. it was still completely and utterly foreign turf at the very very best, completely misunderstood and wildly fantasized by the pop machine and the american public.

when warner brothers records got their hands on the first sex pistols LP (‘never mind the bollocks, here’s the sex pistols’), it was completely unknown territory. warner bros., then considered a leading edge adventurous daring MAJOR label with a history of daring, risk taking and setting the tune for the future of rock music, had this THING in their hands and (frankly) hadn’t a clue as what to do with it. they’d never dealt with anything like it before. even the graphics were so completely the opposite of anything they’d ever seen before. jamie reid’s glaring, putrid ANTI-design style of found letterforms and clipped and pasted garbage was the antithesis of “good”. the music? well, even the best and most enlightened of critics thought it was lousy (but somehow vaguely important.) they just hadn’t a clue as to what to do to sell this ‘crap’. they just knew they had to push it hard because it was ‘the future’.

they pressed up a shitload of copies (i can’t remember the actually initial release numbers, but it was considerable and they expected it to really fly.) but, it staggered along and sold only around 100,000 copies (back then considered ‘zero sales’, when placed against, say, the eagles greatest hits and fleetwood ma’s ‘rumours’ – two of the biggest selling records of ¬†all time.) for all intents and purposes, the sex pistols initial foray into the american market flopped flat on it’s face. the following tour tore the band apart and johnny rotten left the last stage with the exit line, “ever get the feeling you been cheated?”

so, how was the mighty warner bros. to promote this thing? well, they tried to fake it. they looked at jamie reid’s work (and still forming british punk style in general) and scratched their heads and tried to imitate it. but, anti-graphics were so foreign to their way of thinking, that all their efforts look like design school imitations of the lamest sort. take this ad, for instance. i clipped this from rolling stone magazine when it was published in the initial foray of sales pitch to push this failed record. in a world of beauty and airbrush and disco chrome lettering and ersatz glamour and huge wasteful budgets that was the rock world of the late 1970′s, to even try to do an advert like this was an exercise in ‘unthink’. the designers and the art directors working this project had to basically forget everything they knew about graphic design and advertising and marketing and do the OPPOSITE of their learning. it’s very apparent that they really couldn’t do it. they couldn’t erase their instincts to do ‘good’ and ‘beautiful’ work.

to begin with, the idea of working in a totally non-professional skill level wasn’t possible for them. for instance, they still HAD to use two colors and actually reverse-out the type (in that red ink) – running it right over the image illegibly and crooked (lamely crooked). maybe it looked ‘punk’ to them, but it still doesn’t work right. it looks like somebody with too much skill trying to look like they have no understanding of their technology, even though their working directly and carefully in that very technology. there is nothing amateurish or DIY about this layout and it’s execution.

another thing that really annoys me is the use of the ‘curtain’ edge along the top. that is such an “art school” ‘touch’ that it completely blows any idea of DIY. no punk DIY kid in the world would look at that photo and then lift a “unifying element” from that photo and place it along the top edge (just like in the photo) as a decorative ‘graphic element.’ it looks like something an interior designer would to match the sofa-size painting to the sofa by matching a color. this little ‘trick’ of design was one of the very first things tossed in the trash by the punk movement. it’s just looks ‘decorator’ and ‘designer’ in the extreme. and that little ‘torn paper edge’ is as lame and stupid and condescending as if they placed a safety pin into the design.

i think this advert is probably put together by some low-level staff designer – a youngster – fresh on ‘the team’ who always got the ‘junk’ work dumped on his lap. he was probably the youngest person on staff and a new hire. he was a newbie college grad (maybe artcenter or cal-arts or whatever) and was hip enough to know who the sex pistols were, but not intelligent enough to know what to do with them. so he faked it – and managed to make every wrong, cliched and rote design choice in his student skull. this really bad advert is the result. even the pull-quote is so weird and lost and misleading that it almost works – but ultimately doesn’t.

however, there is one thing that the kid did that has always amazed and amused me (and the reason i clipped this ad all those years ago.) look what he did with the photo! first he reproduced it as a standard half-toned photo (full frame, of course. you never mess with an art photographer’s cropping, right?) but, then he actually pastes in a ‘xerox’ (photocopy) of the same photo below it.

t’s so weird and so cool. it’s like he didn’t know what to do after he was TOLD to NOT mess with the photo and use it straight across. but, he was hip enough to know that a xerox image was more appropriate to the style. so, he used BOTH! now, that is the only real punk rock touch in this whole design. it’s a totally daring move on his part – actually thwarting his instructions.

then, the REALLY cool thing is what happens to the image! note that in the first photo (the standard half-toned image) the new bassist, sid vicious (just added to the band’s line-up) can be seen leaning (shirtless) in the shadows. in the high-contrast grainy xerox version of that same photo – HE VANISHES!. amazing, huh? now you see him, now you don’t. it becomes (in retrospect) a clear omen, an ‘echo’ (as they call it in cinema) of his own future. by entering the world of the pistols and punk , poor sid gets erased. it’s one of those really serendipitous little things that makes me look back at this advert every few years and just wonder. perhaps this dumb little junior designer kid wasn’t as dumb as i thought? or maybe this was a ‘jungian’ moment of synchronicity? or perhaps i just read too much in to this crap.

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